As this parable of Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is the only one with a proper name, some have thought it an actual account. You might as well say the same of Jack and the Beanstalk, since there are a lot of Jacks about. Lazarus was a name common enough, although events leading to the Passion will give it a solemn timbre (vid John 12:9-11). Is Our Lord pointing back to what lies ahead, with a gesture only the eternal I AM can manage? He may be referring to His friend, which is more likely than referring to Himself. Using one of the Jewish metaphors for heaven, the Lazarus of the parable will rest “in the bosom of Abraham,” and the I AM was before Abraham.
Lazarus is the image of suffering mankind. Dives is the image of indolent mankind, and his name does not appear at all, being assumed only in medieval commentaries. Pilgrims in Jerusalem may still see “the House of Dives” just as they may see “the Inn of the Good Samaritan” on the Jericho Road, and they are of equal archaeological irrelevance. There are carvings of Dives in Ste-Marie-Madeleine at Vezelay and the Abbey of Saint-Pierre at Moissac, and they are imaginative.
Dives does not mean a man, it means “rich.” Contrary to the prejudice of dialectical economists, Dives means rich in a way that can be good or bad. It means something good in the encyclical Dives in Misericordia. God richly offers his mercy to all. The election of the Jews is a sign of that, and Dives, although the encyclical does not say it, is the elect Jew. That does not mean that the earthly fortune and eternal misfortune of Dives is the fate of the Jew. This parable is for every man, just as “the mystery of election refers to every man and woman….”
But it is preached with import for the immediate audience, and so St. Gregory the Great identified Dives with the Jews who “have Moses and the Prophets” and Lazarus with the Gentiles who have only the echoes of Sinai in the philosophers and their virtues.
Moralizers would make the rich man and the poor man a poster for economic justice. I have come across a ballad “Dives and Lazarus” recorded by Mr. and Mrs. Gabriel Coates at Flag Pond in Tennessee in 1916. Mr. and Mrs. Coates apparently felt against the rich man and for the poor man, and they were not the only ones: Their ballad dates back to Elizabethan forms. Charles Dickens gently gives his salute to Lazarus in the life of Christ that he wrote for his own children in 1849, and he surely based A Christmas Carol on the unfulfilled plea of Dives to send Lazarus back to the land of the living to give warning. The ghost of Jacob Marley incants to trembling Scrooge: “…charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
Dives had little charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, and his character is thinly drawn, save that it is wrapped in expensive purple, but he may have had more than some think. Lazarus, covered with untended sores, was left at the rich man’s gate each day, presumably because there was some largesse to be expected. The family of Lazarus may have been as heartless as Dives. Lazarus bore on his weary frame the agony of real poverty, and possibly his friends and family deposited him at the rich man’s gate to rid themselves of him. Mother Teresa used to say that loneliness is the worst poverty.
The parable is about wealth and poverty but not just that, and it is about social rejection and acceptance but not just that. Rich and poor, Jew and Gentile are equally accountable. The social crime of Dives in his luxury turned fatal when it became contempt for eternity. His wealth created the illusion of self-sufficiency. So may the Catholic, who luxuriates in the fullness of truth, wallow in grace until it becomes a contagion, “keeping the faith” without spreading it, going to church without tending the souls starving for the Lord of Life in a culture of death.
“There is a great gulf fixed….” It is one of the most daunting lines from the lips of Christ. Hell is real, and there really is a particular judgment of each soul (cf. 2 Corinthians 5; Philippians 1:21 sq; Hebrews 9:27). Christ calls in love to each soul. It is a warning and not an assurance. The gates of heaven will not open to those who shut their own gates in this world.